Theatre review: The Children at The Gate, Dublin

The Children

The Gate Theatre
Written by Lucy Kirkwood
Director: Oonagh Murphy
Cast: Seán McGinley, Marie Mullen, Ger Ryan

The Gate Theatre, Dublin
13 March 2019

Environmental issues are at the forefront of Lucy Kirkwood's The Children, or at least that is clearly the underlying theme and impetus behind its creation, evident in the post-disaster setting and, to a certain extent, in the nature and attitudes of its three main characters. It's not the intention of the play however to beat anyone over the head with fears of some post-apocalyptic environmental catastrophe, but the focus on the personal interaction of the characters takes precedence to such an extent that it's only late in the play that the three of them actually confront the bigger issue and decide to do something about it. A futile gesture? Too little too late?

Even that is a valid enough point to make; that any effort being made now is going to far too ineffective a response to deal with the scale of the problem. If you aren't already aware of how serious the problem of global warming is, how dangerous our reliance on nuclear power is, well a 100 minute long play isn't going to convince you or turn the world around. It's not as if there hasn't been a huge amount of evidence presented so far. And perhaps that's the problem that The Children really grapples with; not the fact that we are heading for disaster, but how we know it is, but still choose to ignore the signs.

Kirkwood's play doesn't even have to take an extreme hypothetical situation to illustrate the problem, since the situation that Hazel, Robin and Rose are facing is one that is very close to the reality of the meltdown of the nuclear reactors in the power station in Fukushima in 2011. Hazel describes to her old friend Rose her experience of the day the disaster occurred, the moment the house shook, the earth cracked open and the sea rushed in. Rose, who once worked with Hazel and her husband Robin at the power station has returned after over 30 years living in America, visiting her friends in their temporary accommodation where they now only have limited electrical supplies and rations of drinking water, and where the cows they kept still remain in the radioactive area of the exclusion zone.

Once the nature of the disaster has been established The Children settles down to explore the more personal dynamic between Hazel, Rose and Robin. The writing and performances are absolutely sparkling, the dialogue the kind of quick-witted banter that is established between a small group of friends who haven't seen each other in a long time, but know each other's quirks and habits well. In the course of their chat, some other undercurrents and tensions rise to the surface however and from the direction of the conversation and references to the situation they find themselves in, the dialogue takes on a bit of an edge. There is clearly some other hidden reason behind Rose's visit after all this time.

It's easy to think that the dynamic between the three characters somewhat overshadows any more important message that The Children might have, and indeed with such terrific performances, such wonderful dialogue and some interesting revelations, it's easy to get distracted by the personal drama of Robin, Rose and Hazel. (A little dance routine to Talking Heads for example is amusing but perhaps a little unnecessary). What matters however is not so much what is said as unsaid, or rather what is clearly already known by each of them but purposefully not talked about. The Children shows all too easily how we can just go along pretending that there's nothing to worry about, and that's very much relevant to the bigger underlying issues.

The same sense of treating something exceptionally serious as part of the ordinary everyday is brought out superbly not just by the subtle nuances of the script, the natural delivery of the dialogue or the superbly engaging performances from Seán McGinley, Marie Mullen and Ger Ryan, but in all the little details of the setting and the direction. There's as much said about inaction and denial in the conditions in which Hazel and Robin are living, and in the fact that Rose knows where they keep their glasses. The Children remains gloriously entertaining and thoughtful on a simple surface level of the interaction between the characters, but those behaviours tell us much more about how we've ended up in the place we are now. Why did no-one think of The Children?

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